I’m reading Ted Barris’s book The Dam Busters, about the epic 1943 raid by Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force flyers on the Möhne and Eder dams. The raid was famous for its risk – 53 men were killed, 18 of them Canadian – and for the new technologies used by the bombers to land “bouncing” bombs.
One of the new gadgets they employed was a Dann rangefinder used by the bomb aimer to place his bombs in the perfect spot to breach the dam. The device worked perfectly, placing the bombs where they could release five billion cubic feet of water into a surrounding area that stretched nearly 160 kilometres.
The RAF planners understood the importance of proper navigation and strategy.
And all of that put me in mind on Super Bowl Sunday of why so many National Football League teams that advertise their attention to detail still don’t take game strategy seriously. Like having someone on the sidelines to navigate the crucial moments in a game where analytical detail, not gut reaction, determines winners and losers.
You don’t have to look far for examples. While everyone (rightly) bemoaned the botched pass-interference non-call in the conference championship game between the Saints and Los Angeles Rams, it was preceded by a dereliction of coaching duty by New Orleans head coach Sean Payton.
The Saints had the ball deep in Los Angeles territory with just 1:58 left in a 20-20 tie. The Rams had just two timeouts left. If Payton ran on three consecutive plays, he could have kicked the go-ahead field goal with about 40 seconds left on the clock.
What did Payton do?
He chose to pass (unsuccessfully) on first down, allowing the Rams to keep a timeout. After a run on second down, he then chose to pass again! When the Saints were cheated on the pass interference call on third down (again stopping the clock), they kicked the field goal to go ahead, now leaving the Rams 1:41 to respond.
And they did, forcing overtime in which Los Angeles won a trip to the Super Bowl.
If coaching had a capital offence, Payton committed it by ignoring the obvious probabilities. In any reasonable game strategy, he failed miserably. This gaffe has been obscured by the pass interference mess and forgiven by a platoon of NFL mastodons who think coaches should “go with your gut” in these situations.
I’m sorry. If you have a tool to help you win games – especially championship games – it’s gross negligence to wing it.
But let’s not pick on Payton alone, because the NFL and its college equivalent are overpopulated by legendary coaches who refuse to adopt the algorithms and data that tell them what the logical play is in the heat of the moment. Fans of NFL teams can recall a nightmarish Andy Reid, Ron Rivera or Mike McCarthy moment when instinct or panic cost their team a win.
In Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, Rams coach Sean McVay added to the canon of confusion, getting so lost in his own play calling late in the game that the referees had to convince him his initial acceptance of a Patriots penalty in the fourth quarter was a bad idea.
While Patriots coach Bill Belichick fumed, McVay took their advice.
Fourth-down percentage, goal-line strategy, timeout odds – there are statistics that show the way as clearly as the Dann rangefinder guided its bomb aimers. Because these probabilities are not generated by some pal with whom they played high school football, the top coaches in the NFL (and let’s face it, all sports) refuse to bow to reason. Like Payton, they believe there’s mystery in the play calls that they can summon when time gets tight.
Remarkably, almost all owners who profess to doing everything they can to win put up with this nonsense. They buy into the bromides of the old-boys lodge about trusting coaches. But why not have a game strategist at the right hand of the coach to guide him in stressful moments?
Between the offensive and defensive strategies, the personnel decisions and the noise, it’s easy for a coach to shortchange probability factors. Having someone to instantly tell a Payton or Reid to make the easy choice, not the testosterone-choked mistake, can win a game or two a year – more than enough in the NFL to guarantee a playoff spot or home-field advantage.
So you can get with the future or let coaches bomb out.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.